Author’s note: The Tourist is concurrent with Cole Parker’s story “Walt’s”, which I recommend be read first.
‘England and America are two nations separated by a common language’ – attributed to George Bernard Shaw
The Greyhound rolled to a halt by the cemetery, a last catch of the brakes bringing the living dead back from their cell phones and media players. The driver stretched, and before opening the door, made his announcement.
“Sanitaria Springs, 20 minute break. Please don’t be late getting back!”
Peter was mildly surprised at the layover as he thought it was only about half an hour to Binghamton, the next major town. Maybe the driver just wanted a comfort stop. Whatever the reason, Peter was glad of the break as he was flagging from the journey and decided he could murder a coffee.
As he took his turn to get off the bus, Peter thanked the driver who had made to help him down the steps.
“You’re welcome!” came the automatic reply, “Say, are you Australian?”
“No, British. English, from Yorkshire.” Peter replied, trying to be about as polite as possible for a blunt Yorkshireman. The driver made a self-deprecating apology, which Peter thought kind, but unnecessary. He smiled to himself as he realized the much trumpeted, but probably insignificant, sales of British television programs to the US had not really improved understanding of British accents.
Peter looked up and down the road at the few widely spaced houses. Across the street from the cemetery was what he presumed was a barbershop judging by the red and white striped pole outside. The pole was a nice old-fashioned touch. A coffee shop called Roxanne’s stood on the next lot to the barbershop. Peter amused himself with the thought that this probably wasn’t the center of town; just the dead center. Although the effect was subtle, he decided the whole place looked as though it had seen better days. However, Peter’s impressions were likely to have been influenced by the ancient, rusting Nissan parked on the road in front of a house just beyond the cemetery.
‘Roadworthy test? Scrappage scheme?’ he muttered to himself.
Peter shook his head in disbelief and then saw a little VW parked behind the Nissan. Noticing that at least half of the car was on the sidewalk, Peter recalled one of his partner's catch phrases: ‘Keep death off the roads, drive on the pavement.’ Then he realized the sarcasm wouldn’t work. With the US meaning of ‘pavement’, it was more like a genuine road-safety message.
Peter headed across the street to the coffee shop. It looked a bit run-down but it would have to do. Other than the barbershop, there didn't seem to be any other shops of any kind nearby.
Peter pushed open the aluminum-framed glass door and walked in. There was a motley collection of tables and chairs including two tables in the window. A large clock hung on the back wall. In front of a door to the kitchen was a counter with four bar stools, one of which was a veritable throne with back and arms that had a commanding view of the room. The current occupant of this prime position was a teen from the bus, busy texting on his mobile. Looking around, Peter recognized three or four more passengers from the bus and perhaps half a dozen others who he assumed were locals. He took a seat at the nearest unoccupied table, the one in the window nearest the door. A formidable woman with close cropped hair came over for his order. Her name tag announced her as ‘Roxanne’, presumably the owner. He asked for a black coffee. Peter wasn’t very good on picking up on these things, but in this case he was sure Roxanne played for the same team he did, just on the opposite wing!
As Roxanne turned to fetch the order, the bus driver came in and greeted her. “Hi, Sis! Will you be alright with Junior staying over ‘til I am on this run next week?”
“Sure, he’s no trouble... usually!”
“You behave yourself, Junior.” The driver said to the texting teen, mussing his hair as he passed to through into the kitchen.
Peter watched as Roxanne went to the counter to get his order. When he saw the pot being taken from the hotplate where it had been stewing for God only knew how long, he wished he had risked asking for tea. Nevertheless he thanked Roxanne when she returned and handed him his coffee. Again the automatic reply: ‘You’re welcome!’ The glint in Roxanne’s eyes made Peter think the sentiment behind the reply was genuine. To avoid any delay later, he paid for his coffee and took his change with another thank you. The reply was amended: “You’re welcome, sweetie!”
'Sweetie? Good God! I’m old enough to be her father.' thought Peter. As for this ‘you’re welcome' business, he found it refreshing and appreciated it when it was said with genuine feeling as on this occasion. But being the archetypal British cynic that he was, he preferred the surly service at home if the sentiment was only an insincere rote response.
Peter saw a rack holding copies of what he presumed was the local free newspaper, ‘Hollows Hollers’. He grabbed a copy, his eye caught, not by the lead article about the usual shenanigans of local politicians, but a smaller item headed ‘Disgraced Priest dies in Boston’. ‘Why would a small town be interested in the death of somebody nearly 200 miles away?’
He was about to start on the article when a man in his late forties asked if he could join Peter at his table. On his first (and last) trip across the pond he had nearly always found the ‘locals’ interested in meeting you, especially when they realized you were a visitor from overseas.
Something about the man's manner put Peter at ease, so he nodded his assent and the guy took the seat across from him, facing the door.
Peter replied with his own name. As they bobbed from their seats to shake hands, Peter studied Lukas closely. He would certainly have been good looking as a young man. He could still be described as handsome and Peter felt there was also definite sexual edge in his appeal.
"I overheard you talking to Roxanne and thought you might be from England, possibly the North?" Lukas asked.
Complimenting him on his guess, Peter explained where he was from. "How did you know?" he asked.
"I have business contacts in Sheffield," replied Lukas. "In fact, I was over there last month and thought I recognized a similarity in the accent. Here, have one of my cards; it also has my English -- or should I say, British -- details on it."
Peter was impressed that Lukas acknowledged the difference between England and Britain as a whole. Thinking they might be useful, Peter, for once, had been sufficiently organized to have some of his own cards printed. He handed one to Lukas.
"Next time you are in Yorkshire, why don't you knock me up?"
Peter was delighted by the confusion on Lukas’ face caused by his deliberate faux pas.
"Sorry, I meant call me and we can arrange to meet," Peter explained, having the decency to blush for having embarrassed his companion.
"These days we don't get many visitors round these parts, never mind from overseas," Lukas said, changing the subject. "I thought I saw you get off the bus. What brings you to Sanitaria Springs?"
Peter replied that he was on holiday and was satisfying a curiosity about New England railroads. He was on his own, he explained. His partner of thirty years suffered from too many of the chronic conditions of old age to make the trip, and wasn’t interested in railways anyway. Peter was headed to Binghamton to a model-railroad exhibition and convention.
Peter also explained that he decided to use the bus, partly for old times’ sake, having used the Greyhound to cross the continent twice on his trip thirty five years ago. More importantly he did not like driving alone, and, on the bus he would be able to meet more people. He would also see more of the country around him, not having to concentrate on the road.
"You said the place doesn't have many visitors these days when you asked why I was here. Did it ever get many?" Peter asked when it came time to change the subject again.
Lukas gave Peter a brief history of the town, including how it was originally called Osborne's Hollows, and the rise and fall of the Sanitarium.
“I thought the place looked as though it had seen better days," said Peter. "I assume the derelict building I saw as the bus came down into town was the old sanitarium? Any plans to redevelop it?"
"Yes and no!" Lukas replied. "It appears to belong to the state, which has no money to spare to do anything, and there is nobody interested in buying it at a sensible price."
As Peter drained the last of his coffee, which he had to admit was better than he expected, he again noticed the newspaper article about the dead priest. He pointed to the piece, and asked Lukas if he knew anything about it.
Lukas pulled the paper in front of him in order to read the story.
While Lukas read, Peter looked out of the window and noticed a man leave the barbershop and head his way. The man, who looked to be in his fifties, appeared to be smartly, indeed precisely dressed. Not a hair out of place. Except that was wrong; the man had a strange, asymmetric haircut. Peter could tell he was angry about something. Not only did he seem to be talking to himself, but his face was also getting redder and redder as he approached. Peter felt the pressure wave as the door was forced open and knew that Lukas had recognized the man by the dark change that swept across his face.
“Incredible! That they could try and humiliate me! Coffee, Roxanne! Oh! I could murder those fags!” the man grumbled loud enough for all to hear. Peter knew enough to realize the rant had nothing to do with cigarettes.
The atmosphere in the room changed and Peter could sense some of the other customers getting fidgety. He turned to look into the room and saw Roxanne signal to her nephew to move from the fancy bar stool. The newcomer took possession, as if by right.
“Mr. Vernon, please calm down and watch your language.” There was an edge to Roxanne’s voice as she brusquely set a cup of coffee on the counter in front of him. “Why are you pissed, anyway?”
'Pissed off, not drunk,' Peter reminded himself.
“Walt! He’s chucked me out... halfway through my haircut! Told me go elsewhere in the future. Where the heck am I going to go? There is nowhere else round here. I’ll have to go over to Binghamton, just for a damn haircut!” Vernon declared to the room from his vantage point.
“And just what did you do to get Walt so upset?” asked Roxanne in a measured tone. For Walt to ban a regular customer she knew it must be bad; it was just not his way of doing things.
“Well,” said Vernon, calming a little when he realized he had an audience, “there were a couple of fag kids in there, so I thought I would have some fun and see if I got a reaction. I made a few remarks about how we dealt with them in my days at school.”
Keeping his eyes on Vernon, Lukas leaned across to Peter and whispered, “Beat them senseless, even when they were down, is what I heard.”
“One of the fairies was starting to react, but that limp wristed pinko, Tommy Parks, gets up and tells tales of how we did him over when he wanted to be on the football team back when he was in high school, and how the fag kid sitting there in the barbershop was supposedly the star player of last year’s team.
“He said the players last year hadn’t wanted any queers on the team and had tried to get rid of this kid. Then the blame for him getting beaten up was laid on my grandson, Billy Carlisle,” Vernon declaimed putting his own spin on the events at the school.
Lukas’ eyes took on a cold look, a change that confirmed Peter’s suspicions that there was form between Vernon and Lukas.
“You were asking about the priest,” Lukas said quietly to Peter. “I think Mr. Vernon might help explain…”
He stood up and raised his voice just enough to get the attention of Vernon and the others in the room.
“William Vernon. I haven’t seen you for years. Our paths don't cross as I’m mostly out of town with my business. Doing well thank you; better than you’ve been with yours by the things I hear.”
Vernon's red face went two shades darker.
“My business is my business, not yours, Schmidt!” Vernon growled, acknowledging that he recognized his antagonist. What Vernon would not acknowledge was that his business had been going downhill since he had sacked his manager, who had had the temerity to suggest that Vernon’s bullying management style was no longer acceptable. It had led to high staff turnover and had impacted the business badly.
Peter, who had once again turned to face the room, had seen that Vernon's discomfort was being enjoyed by those he had marked as locals.
Lukas held up Peter’s newspaper and pointed at the article.
“I see the Reverend Gabriel McBride has died. You were an acolyte for him for a long time, weren’t you Billy?" Lukas emphasized his nickname, knowing Vernon disliked it. "Some people thought that a bit odd as your family wasn’t particularly religious, and you didn’t really seem to be, either.
“No angel, the Reverend Gabriel, was he?” Peter thought he noticed a flicker of emotion on Billy’s face as if remembering something not wholly pleasant.
“Preyed on the young and insecure in his flock -- for the best part of ten years wasn’t it? Didn’t seem to mind: boys or girls.”
Peter was silently thankful that, at age nine, his own ‘run in’ with a priest had been relatively benign. With the paper still in his hand, Lukas moved out to free himself from the table.
“Oh, they complained to their parents, but nobody wanted to believe it of a ‘Man of God’, until some of the victims had the courage to talk to each other and then started gathering evidence. Even then the church would only agree to move him elsewhere. He was finally stopped when that young sheriff from McBride’s previous parish got involved. He knew all about McBride, having been a victim himself.”
Lukas paused for breath.
“I don’t need to listen to this.” said Billy as he got up from his stool to make for the door, only to find the direct route blocked by the bus driver, who had come through from the back room to collect his passengers, but had held off reckoning this too good to interrupt. Billy had started to raise his arm and it looked as though he was going to push the driver aside. Peter thought he saw Roxanne’s nephew holding his phone as if surreptitiously taking pictures of Billy.
“It was thought McBride got to you too, Billy. But they didn’t ask you to testify against him, did they?”
Lukas' statement caused Billy to abandon his attempt to leave.
“But he never touched me! And he was kind to me when my father was treating me like nothing. ” Billy barked as he turned towards Lukas and dropped himself into a chair.
“Maybe not physically. But he abused you alright; he spotted something in the way you interacted with some of the boys he had broken. Encouraged you to take advantage of them while all the time he was spouting how hell-fire would come down on worthless queers and fairies. He was just playing with your mind instead of your body! It would be enough to leave anyone totally conflicted.”
Billy broke in to object.
“You can’t say that. There was no evidence. They never prosecuted me for being involved or anything. I’m damn sure my lawyers are going to be interested in anything you have to say.” He spat the words at Lukas.
Brandishing the folded paper, Lukas waved him down.
“You were under age at the time. The day McBride was arrested was your 16th birthday, wasn’t it?”
Billy couldn’t stop himself from giving a nod of agreement.
“But that is not the point. It looked as though you were bullying those other kids, if not worse. But the prosecutor reckoned with counselling you would straighten out once McBride was gone.
Lukas took a pace towards Billy and pressed on. “But you never got that chance, did you? Your father thought real men didn’t need counselling and wouldn’t let you go. Then he took you into his business and got you doing the hiring and firing. You liked to look good by taking on disadvantaged kids. ‘Giving them a lift up’, you called it. But you would take advantage of them if you could get them to fall for you. They wouldn’t say anything for fear of losing their jobs, and maybe their parents’ jobs if they also worked for you. Those that looked as though they might say something would get roughed up a bit, with the promise of worse if anything was to get out.
“Have I evidence? Maybe not the sort that would stand up against some fancy lawyer you’d be sure to hire. But you remember Duane Adams, don’t you?"
As Lukas moved to stand across the table from him, Billy said nothing but his face twitched with enough emotion to betray the memory.
"Lived with his dad at the wrong end of town. They both worked for you. When it came to Duane you didn’t just use his body: you left him with his brains messed up as well. He thought you liked him and you would even help him out with extra cash. But then he came to realize it made him feel like a whore."
Peter noticed the attentive silence in the room. Everybody seemed to have their eyes focused on Billy but their ears were on Lukas’ words. Billy looked troubled and conflicted by his memories.
“But you were always calling out anybody you thought a queer, thereby encouraging every bigot in the place to do likewise. The trouble was Duane got marked as a fag. Poor Duane couldn’t understand your conflicting standards. The abuse he got started getting physical and eventually he could take no more and threw himself off the I- 88 bridge into the front of a semi rig. To cap it all off you threatened to fire his grieving father for being absent when you wouldn't let him have time off for the inquest.”
Lukas braced himself with his hands on the table as he leaned towards Billy, forcing the words at him. For once it was Billy’s turn to be on the receiving end of this kind of intimidation; he was usually the one dishing it out. He was clearly taken aback as, for the second time in an hour, his sense of his own self-importance was being challenged. He was unable to marshal his thoughts fast enough to make a telling response.
"How do I know about Duane? Well he wrote me the day he died!" Lukas' voice had become more measured.
"In spite of our different backgrounds, Duane and I had been best friends for years, ever since we met in school. I was small for my age and used to get picked on by some of the other kids in school. Duane didn’t think that was right and sorted things out for me. After that we would look out for each other. All was well until I went away to college and we weren't there for each other. We kept in touch by mail. At the time there was really no other way, and we would visit when I was home.
"We managed to sort out some of the problems we both had, including him getting work. But I wasn't able to be there for him when things got too bad for him. How I regret suggesting he ask you for a job! Because it was my suggestion, he never said anything about the shit you were giving him until that last letter. And it was too late by the time I got it.
"He never said anything to his dad either, not wanting to risk their jobs. My father and I tried to support Ken, Duane's dad, as much as we could. My dad and his friends offered to help build a case against you, but Ken had to tell them not to waste their time and money. He reckoned there was no chance of building any kind of case strong enough to win. And there was no way he and his supporters could afford any extended appeals.”
Lukas leaned back against the table behind him, his hands curled around the edge. The tension in his body eased and a sadness showed in his face, as if remembering some great loss.
"But you broke my heart too, Billy. You see, Duane really was gay, and when he was gone, I realized just how much I loved him and what we might have had together."
Peter noticed Billy shifting in his chair and guessed he was thinking about how he could spin this revelation against Lukas. However, before Billy could interrupt Lukas regained control and continued calmly.
"I’ve watched you over the years, gathering snippets of information here and there, trying to find a way to understand you and what you did to poor Duane. Trying to find a way to accept it and maybe even forgive you.
“It never surprised me, but not once have I heard of you acknowledging what happened to Duane, let alone expressing any remorse over it.
“I presume you agree that a homosexual is someone who has a preference for sex with their own gender?"
There was a collective sucking of teeth at the sudden change in direction. As murmurs of agreement started to be heard, Billy’s cheek twitched. The color drained briefly from his face as he suddenly realized what was coming next.
"From what I've learnt about you, it seems that you like sex with men, so that makes you a homosexual, Billy! Let's face it: you're gay! The trouble is McBride taught you to hate that about yourself, so you project that hate on every other guy you think might be gay.
“I think I understand that about you, and I thought that I had come to accept it and moved on. But then you marched in here with your hypocritical homophobic attitude and I couldn't let that pass. Maybe I owe you any apology for tearing into you, but perhaps, having finally got to confront you, I might find I can even forgive you. And maybe, just maybe, it will help you see the need for you to understand yourself and accept that you’re one of those gays you so like to rant about!”
For emphasis Lukas pointed to the table. The paper still lay there, the story facing up at Billy accusingly. Lukas turned and moved back to join Peter. As he sat down, Peter warned him to watch out. Billy looked the sort to try some underhand means of revenge.
Muttered comments about Billy were being made around the room, becoming louder and more disparaging. Peter managed to pick out two of the best:
“Who was that guy from Chenango you had to pay off, Billy?”
“Why don’t you get your haircut in Binghamton next time you go over there to cruise in the park?”
Peter thought he saw resistance building in Billy. Roxanne had noticed it too, and moved to stand over the man.
"Looks like you've been outed now, Mr. Vernon." Roxanne waved her around the room to indicate the other customers as witnesses.
Billy jumped up and stared at Lukas, shouting “Bullshit! It's all lies and hearsay. You can be damn sure you will hear from my lawyers."
He looked around the room. "If I hear any more about this, I’ll sue the lot of you!”
“I don’t think so, Mr. Vernon.” The light voice of the texting teen rang out. “At least, you might like to look at this first!”
The teen moved so Billy could look at the screen of his mobile, ready to jump out of the way should Billy lash out. Billy’s face changed through every color of the rainbow as he looked at the screen.
“You little…” he mumbled to the teen. He straightened up, adjusted his jacket, straightened his tie, and studiously looked at the clock.
“Hell! Is that the time? I must go, I have friends coming over.” he proclaimed, emphasizing the word friends. He turned, flung open the door and marched out.
“Should be interesting when word gets back to those rednecks.” said Roxanne.
There was silence until the door rattled closed, giving the bus driver his cue.
"Sorry to spoil the moment. Any passengers for Binghamton, please return to the bus."
The driver and his sister then turned and cornered his son.
“What the heck did you show him?”
“Let’s just say I sent his picture to my friends. I showed him the reply from one who lives in the Lark Street area of Albany.”
“You crafty little…”
As they said their goodbyes, Peter reminded Lukas to call on him should he ever be in Yorkshire again. He left a tip for Roxanne, picked up a fresh copy of the newspaper and hastened out of the diner, across the road and climbed onto the bus.
As they set off, the driver apologized for the late departure, commenting that any passengers who had been in the diner would understand why.
Peter was distracted from the announcement as he was watching two good looking teens on the sidewalk. The slimmer one with long hair seemed to be almost dancing round the other. 'More than just good friends?' thought Peter, as the pair turned towards the house with the rusting Nissan at the curb.
No longer able to watch the two young men, Peter opened the back page of the newspaper to be confronted by a photo of one of the guys he had just been admiring. The accompanying article revealed the other side of Vernon's story of what had happened during the football season at the local high school.
Peter settled back to read the paper, happy in the thought that he was going to enjoy recounting the day's events to his partner when he returned home.
My sincere thanks to Cole Parker and Dabeagle for their extensive help and guidance and to John for that final edit. Any errors are of course my own.